One of the less-discussed subplots of the final 15 games of this season is whether Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger can be long-term teammates.
When one digs in and considers the matter, it’s hard to imagine how a front-court with Olynyk and Sullinger could work. Sully is undersized and slow, although one hopes a healthy offseason might allow him to lose some weight and gain some athleticism. Olynyk is a healthy size for a power forward/center, but his length and athleticism are both very much in question, as well as his strength (more on this early next week).
Defensively, this seems problematic, even though both players have shown flashes on the defensive end. Sullinger can body most bigs out of the lane and, of course, he’s a fantastic rebounder. Olynyk, meanwhile, has gotten better and better at moving his feet and drawing charges or cutting off drives.
But both players have obvious flaws as well. Olynyk desperately needs to add muscle. Sullinger struggles any time he’s forced to hedge hard on a pick-and-roll. ICE PnR coverage works well for Sully, but even then quicker guards can turn the corner on him once they’ve passed the screen.
So how could these two players — both power forwards, both flawed defensively — ever share a front-court long term? Let’s briefly hand the mic to MassLive’s Jay King:
With both Olynyk and Sullinger on the court, Boston (22-46 on the season) is outscoring opponents by 2.0 points per 100 possessions – a point differential that would be 13th-best in the league, if extrapolated over the entire regular season. Essentially, the duo has made the Celtics above-average, a most impressive feat considering that they currently own the NBA’s fourth-worst record. No other regular Celtics frontcourt pairing has come particularly close.
As Jay points out later in the article, it likely isn’t the defense making the biggest difference for the duo. Rather, it’s the fact that the offense starts clicking when two bigs who can both spread the floor, run a high PnR, pass and post-up are both on the court. But it’s worth noting that together, they can create a positive point differential at age 22. What could they do in a few years?
Zach Lowe, a former writer at Celtics Hub and arguably the best basketball writer on the internet, has a new podcast called “The Lowe Post,” and it promises to be a good one. In his pilot episode, he talked to True Hoop’s Kevin Arnovitz about several topics, including the Clippers duo of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
“I want to know if it takes time to gel,” Arnovitz told Lowe. “I want [someone] to look at the Pacers who have been together for 17,000 minutes (Note: He’s being facetious) and see if there’s an uptick in defensive efficiency.”
“Especially the two bigs,” Lowe responded. “That big-to-big communication, you’ve seen up close and I’ve seen on TV, Blake and DeAndre, just how they rotate to the same guy, or they think the other guy is rotating over there. That has taken a long time for them.”
It’s important to remember that playoff and championship teams are rarely built in one year. Rather, they are built over the course of several seasons of addition, subtraction and (most importantly) development. In the NBA, where communication on defense is key, developing chemistry with your fellow players might be equally as important as re-working your roster. In this case, Boston’s road back to relevancy might actually be shorter if the team simply rides with Sullinger and Olynyk.
Let’s be clear: If the Celtics draft Joel Embiid (not my top choice in the draft given his injury question marks, but certainly a worthwhile one), either Olynyk or Sullinger is likely going to be traded. But if Boston picks up one of the highly touted wings (Wiggins, Parker, Exum, etc.), it’s equally possible that the Cs could allow Olynyk and Sullinger to spend at the very least 2014-15 playing extended minutes together to see what they have. Although they aren’t a traditional combo for a four and a five, it’s not impossible that — surrounded with the right players — they could be productive long-term.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.